Let's Learn From the Past: United States Colored Troops

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As Pennsylvania continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a greater emphasis is being placed on the service of African-American soldiers, a group who not only fought for its country, but also to defeat slavery.

African-Americans were prohibited from serving in the U.S. military for the first two years of the Civil War, but the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 called for them to be enlisted to fight for the Union Army. With that order, more than 180,000 free blacks and runaway slaves, including 8,000 from Pennsylvania, formed a force known as the U.S. Colored Troops.

One of the USCT's most respected soldiers was Pittsburgh native Martin Delany, an abolitionist and the first African-American field officer in the U.S. Army. He attended Jefferson College (now Washington & Jefferson) and served as a doctor, a journalist and an outspoken voice against slavery before joining the army. Delany, who is considered to be the "Father of Black Nationalism," actively recruited African-American troops for the army and received high praise from President Abraham Lincoln.

With leaders such as Delany, the USCT became a critical force for the Union's efforts, comprising 10 percent of the entire Union Army by the time the Civil War ended.

After the Union Army defeated the Confederates in 1865, thousands of these soldiers marched proudly in uniform down the streets of Harrisburg, in what would be known as the Pennsylvania Grand Review. The celebration was held in spite of the more famous Grand Review of Armies in Washington, D.C., which did not allow the USCT to participate.

More than 100 United States Colored Troops are laid to rest in Lawrenceville's historic Allegheny Cemetery.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about Martin Delany and the United States Colored Troops as part of the new long-term exhibition, "From Slavery to Freedom." More information is available at www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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